Wildwood Barbecue opened its doors tonight, joining an increasingly crowded field of smoke joints in the Flatiron district. Aside from the very sub par Duke's located around the corner on 19th Street Wildwood faces some stiff competition from local barbecue restaurants Blue Smoke, Hill Country and R.U.B., all of which are within walking distance of the new restaurant.
Big Lou representing Hill Country at last years Big Apple BBQ Block Party
Not that Wildwood is showing up to the gunfight with a knife, B.R. Guest Restaurants, the entity behind the venture had the foresight to hire Big Lou Elrose, formally of Hill Country, as "executive" pitmaster and Matt Fisher as pitmaster for the NYC location. While Big Lou has gained a loyal following amongst barbecue aficionados on the back of his fine work at Hill Country Matt Fisher is less renowned. That is likely to change if the 'cue I sampled tonight is any indication of his potential. Given that this is the restaurants opening night this should not be considered a definitive review as much a preliminary report.
I mentioned Big Lou was the executive pitmaster because apparently there will be Wildwood springing up across America. Indeed, the menu does not subscribe to one type of barbecue or another but rather ocombines a menagerie of regional styles into a cohesive menu. The beef items on offer, brisket and an enormous bone in short rib are pure Texas and not dissimilar from the 'cue at Hill Country. There is also a Carolina pulled pork sandwich, Memphis-style dry rubbed ribs and Denver lamb ribs.
The beef brisket was absolutely superb, moist, tender, smoky and delicious. It was the epitome of fork tender 'cue, it won't fall apart at the mere sight of a fork but it will easily succumb to the slightest pressure. In many ways it combines the finer aspects of Hill Country moist and lean brisket without being either too fatty or too dry.
Even better than the brisket was the massive beef short rib which had a wonderful caramelized crust and comes served on a Bowe knife sized bone.
The inside of the beef short rib contrasted nicely with the exterior. While the latter had a salty, bitter sweet, dark character that fell into the yin, the tender ribbons of smoky beef that lay inside brought the 'cue back into the yang. The smoke ring was particularly distinct with a deep pink hue. This standard of barbecue would be impressive under any circumstance but the fact that a restaurant turned out a piece of beef of this quality on their opening night portends well for the future.
The Carolina pulled pork was as good as I have had in NYC. It was very flavorful and tender with a nice smokiness that still allowed the porks inherent sweetness to come through. The accompanying potato bread and a vinegary sauce where largely superfluous, the pork was compelling enough on its own.
The rib sampler - Spare, babyback and lamb
The rib sampler offers a good introduction in to some of the diverse varieties of 'cue on offer. My favorite was the spare ribs that where nice and meaty, replete with an impressive pink smoke ring. They perhaps fell behind the finest example of the breed found at Daisy May's and R.U.B. (although the latter has been rather inconsistent as of late) but none the less where quite impressive. The baby backs, slathered in an allegedly spicy chipotle raspberry, was not very spicy at all and mercifully the raspberry flavor was minimal. Truth be told I don't find baby backs make for the best 'cue, they just don't have enough fat for my taste.
I was not enthusiastic about everything that I sampled. The two home made sausage varities, Texas style and Jalepeno, where rather lackluster and while juicy lacked flavor, especially the former. Certainly it lacked the crispy skin that Hill Country achieve with their hot links. The sausage at Wildwood also fell behind their rivals in terms of flavor and smokiness. Similarly I found the Denver lamb ribs to be rather chewy and hard to eat, the flavor was good but texturally it was not successful.
I was also not a big fan of the sauces on offer, although most of the barbecue was so good that it really does not need any adornments. The classic Barbecue sauce was just a bit to thin on the palate and perhaps a tad too sweet. Big Lou's Secret Sauce had a nice kick to it from the chipotle but also had an underlying sickly sweetness from the raspberry that was disconcerting. The side items are worth mentioning, the kettle cooked burnt end and bacon baked beans had a hearty flavor, the creamy coleslaw was tangy and d crispy and the honey drizzled corn bread was sweet enough that it could have been a desert item. The creamed spinach was just OK but perhaps my steady diet of steakhouses has left me a bit jaded.
I appreciate the fact that one can order ice cream by the scoop and at only $2 each it is quite a bargain. I must take issue with the use of disposable cutlery and serving dish however, B.R. Guest make a big deal about "going green" on their home page but the use of disposable utensils seems to belie this.
The room in which all this barbecue unfolds is designed by David Rockwell and while not as tiresome as the design at Hill Country, which tries very hard to make you think that you are in Texas, the room here echoes the menu in providing a sort of universally generic amalgam of what a contemporary smoke joint might be. The space is dominated by the bar that runs almost the whole length of the restaurant, huge slabs of aged wood and steel poles compose the rafters as garage doors hang above the denizens of the bar. The lighting, which was lowered during the meal is warm and inviting. Unfortunately the table I dined at, with four other people was far too narrow for the task of holding the plates and dishes, a fact that was exacerbated by the geometric variety of the dishes some of which where so long that they almost spanned the table itself. A manager assured us that the table was to be replaced, I wonder if the designers have ever actually eaten a barbecue meal.
It is probably not fair to judge the service on the first night. While my waiter was effusive and knowledgeable of the menu there where some gaps in the service, a drink order took far to long to fulfill and a request for the furnishment of pickles to accompany some of the meats showed up when almost all the meat was gone. Never the less just as with my experience at Primehouse NY on their opening night, the problems where minor and the food overshadowed any short comings at the service end of things.
As I stated at the onset of this piece this is only a preliminary report but I will most assuredly be back at Wildwood, the potential for some consistently great barbecue is apparent. It will be interesting to witness the fine tuning of the operation in the weeks to come. The comparisons to Hill Country will be inevitable given Big Lou's history but the restaurant is closer in spirit to Blue Smoke, with its upmarket design and aspirations. Whether the neighborhood really needs another barbecue restaurant with a wine list remains to be seen but if the high standards I experienced tonight can be maintained I see no reason why Wildwood won't be a success.